Essays (book reviews)

Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, edited by Michael Almereyda, Jonathan Lethem, and Robert Polito
(Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2019, 280 pages)


Manny Farber (1917-2008), whether as a film critic or an artist, has today become one of those figures easy to instantly smother in ready-made clichés. Just as we tend to identify the films of Terry Gilliam with zany fish-eye lenses, or those of Béla Tarr with long, slow takes, we say of Farber’s writing that we cannot easily tell whether he likes or dislikes a film (since he so thoroughly confounded that distinction), and we remark of his wonderfully crowded paintings that a spectator can start at any point and go in any direction.

In all things, we celebrate his hardboiled, cool cat style. It’s all very Farberian, or Farberesque, or (as the man himself would doubtless have added with a shrug), “whatever”.

But what then? What more is there to say? Is there anything that we can generate as inspiring, handy pointers or principles from Farber’s work across media? This is a challenge that Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings – assembled by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, novelist Jonathan Lethem, and writer Robert Polito – skirts.

Farber’s deep-dish champions may bristle at the very suggestion that he could be made somehow useful in any approximately pedagogical fashion. After all, Farber no doubt remains unique, and his palest imitators (in film, music, and art criticism) continue to fall like flies around his grave.

As Robert Storr, a not entirely uncritical commentator on Farber, suggests in his essay “All Aboard!” included here, he “has become a cult figure, and cult figures are nearly impossible to write about since everything specific that is said about them is subsumed by the glow of their exceptionalism” – or their “annihilating aura”.

It would be truer to Farber’s immense achievement, Storr suggests, if we tried to honour its details, since “art is in and about its specifics”. But, like most books launched in gestures of fond tribute, this one finds it hard to strike a workable balance between the mining of specifics and the celebration of exceptionalism.

It’s a little tough to get a fix on what this book exactly wants to be. Lacking any editorial introduction, all we have as clues or pointers is the order of words in its title (“Paintings and Writings”), and a passing admission from Almereyda on page 243 that, ten years after Farber’s death in 2008 and the avalanche of tributes to his film criticism, “Manny’s paintings remain less well-known, less assuredly loved. Thus, this book”.

So, we could say it’s essentially a handsome, very welcome book of reproductions of Farber’s paintings – an art book. And – some blurry photographic renderings aside – it’s certainly a lovely object to peruse and peer into (bring a magnifying glass for the more challenging-to-discern pictorial details).

Then again, it’s true to the spirit of its subject to just start in without any orienting map beyond the contents page. And the divisions on that page are already intriguing, rather like the vivid planes of colour Farber used to section out his paintings. There are, interwoven, sections titled (all upper case) PAINTINGS (I to IV); as well as (upper and lower case) “A Farber Dossier” (1 to 3), the latter showcasing his writings on art and on film and, lastly, literally, on bits of paper – typed and handwritten “Class Quizzes & Notes”.

Interspersed through all that – sometimes closely and sometimes distantly related to the art reproductions – are essays, mostly short and punchy, by 26 contributors.

In truth, the book is a bit of a smorgasbord – a primer for anyone intrigued by Farber and his multi-pronged legacy. Some of its texts are touchingly personal accounts (the deepest testimony comes from Almereyda, and the most moving comes, at the very end, from Farber’s wife and collaborator, Patricia Patterson); others peek into his biographical background (Polito has done solid research into the early family years).

There are strokes of art criticism, dabs of creative writing, and some frantic cinephilic networking between the films and filmmakers that (more or less) constitute the subjects of Farber’s long series of “movie paintings”, and the often cryptic, allusive, jokey details he arranged on his canvases.

Some pieces have been gleaned from elsewhere: there are brief extracts from longer articles by, for instance, poet Bill Berkson (1939-2016); lightly reworked essays from magazines or art catalogues by Luc Sante and Richard Armstrong; and several contributions to the 2006 event “Manny Farber and All That Jazz”, a “five-hour tribute curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin at the University of California, San Diego”, the place where Farber taught between 1970 and 1987.

Gorin’s manifesto-style introduction to that event, “Reset the Clocks”, laid out on the page like a Mallarmé poem, is a stirring highlight of Paintings and Writings.

Other great moments of the book come from Robert Walsh in his beautiful essay on the Farber-Patterson union (another contributor, chef Alice Waters, goes so far as to say that their way of organising their two home studios was “a perfect metaphor for marriage”); and filmmaker extraordinaire Kelly Reichardt – who, perhaps like many directors, seems somewhat relieved that Farber never got around to critiquing one of her own creations.

Devotees of Farber (I’m one) like to circulate the rumours of archival projects to come: a collection of his non-film writings that were strategically omitted from the Library of America edition of his work (edited by Polito); and a gathering of his voluminous teaching notes (Kent Jones has spoken in various places of being in charge of that). Since both those projects get some (non-exhaustive) representation in Paintings and Writings, I wonder whether what we have here is a teaser or, more soberly, a stand-in for what may never come to pass – the market for books on Farber being, after all, maybe not so huge.

Be that as it may, there is plenty to enjoy between the hard covers of this compendium. For an archive-nut such as myself, the “Class Quizzes & Notes” selection rewards hours of microscopic inspection (and, in some cases, decipherment, which is no easy task).

Farber’s art criticism of the ‘40s has been tantalisingly quoted and discussed in previous books by Greg Taylor (Artists in the Audience) and David Bordwell (The Rhapsodes). But the complete pieces provided here – on Goya, Posada, abstract expressionism, comic strips – are a revelation. Who but Farber would praise Goya for, above all, the “consistent purity” of his “hatred” of all things human and social? (This is a provocation I reflect upon in my contribution to the 2023 anthology What Film is Good For: On the Values of Spectatorship.)

As for Farber’s own art, an extended, text-less run of “Later Paintings” reproduced over 30 pages, which shift the generative allusion-game to other painters (Cézanne) and writers (Bataille), is particularly breathtaking.

Some readers will have a passing familiarity with the preceding period of his work, the aforementioned movie-paintings that have adorned past covers of Cahiers du cinéma and Framework. Whether he’s painting filmic memories, flowers, stationery or nuts & bolts, Farber’s characteristic aerial perspective is a wonder to behold and study. Several contributors compare it with Google Maps – but the effects produced are teeming and alive, sent scuttling in every direction by deliberately surreal irregularities in scale and perspective.

Although Lethem’s contribution, “Termite Footprints” – “an attempt, doomed to fail, to make a Manny Farber tabletop painting in words” – is among the book’s weaker inclusions, it does, however, propose one intriguing idea in this regard: that the genuine opposite number to Farber’s beloved figure-metaphor of the termite is not (as he thought) a white elephant but, rather, a high-flying bird with its detached, omniscient view. There’s nothing detached in Farber’s involvement with the things of the world.

Paintings and Writings is not a systematic book, and its gaps are evident. Rather tellingly, the section devoted to Farber’s abstract art includes no written commentary whatsoever – not even a prefatory editorial note. Without some representational detail to hang onto and free-associate over, these assembled critics, it would seem, are utterly lost!

In general, I find the art-critical work on Farber gathered here fairly narrow in its range of comparative references. There are fine pieces of art appreciation (especially those by Storr and Durga Chew-Bose), and several intriguing references to a (very) distant precursor of Farber’s painting style: namely, Herakleitos’ The Unswept Floor (from 2nd C. BCE), helpfully reproduced for those who haven’t visited the Vatican in Rome lately. Richard Armstrong smartly relates Farber to the grand, American modernist tenets of flatness and process in art (hence the high regard, expressed in 1945, for then-newcomer Jackson Pollock).

When it comes to networking Farber in relation to other artists and international art practices, however, the results are slimmer. Polito spends a third of his essay comparing Farber to Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) – and the affinity, judging from the works reproduced, is indeed striking – but can only feebly conclude this speculation with, “Influence … Coincidence … Who can say?”

More generally, given that (in Amanda Petrusich’s astute observation) Farber’s painting (like his writing) is “chiefly concerned with exploding a thing into its constituent bits, and then gently surveying the remnants, figuring out how or if they complement each other”, I was surprised to see no reference to the movement (still fashionable in art schools all over the world) of relational aesthetics as spruiked by super-curator Nicolas Bourriaud – or an earlier and more soulful embodiment of this trend, namely Italian polymath Gianfranco Baruchello (1924-2023).

It was the latter who declared (in the extraordinary 1985 book Why Duchamp) that his artistic and philosophical goal was to “make an inventory of all the things that clutter up my mind in a way that implies that each of these things is a complement of all the others, and that what they’re looking for is the secret of what all of them can mean together”. Sound familiar? Farberian, even?

This is not a deeply analytical book, and generally doesn’t really try to be. In-depth texts have been published elsewhere: for instance, pieces by Patrice Rollet (who introduced the French edition of Farber’s collection Negative Space), Bill Krohn (“My Budd”) or, back in the ‘60s, Donald Phelps (“Critic Going Everywhere”). But there is no general bibliography in Paintings and Writings to help you find these and other gems, some of which have appeared in special Farber dossiers in online magazines including Comparative Cinema and Rouge.

Moreover, I was disappointed at the generally all-American tenor of its contributor roster (Gorin, Chris Petit and Olivier Assayas notwithstanding). There are Farber experts in many parts of the world, including Spain and Australia; it would have been good to hear from a few of them, at the very least in order to get a sense of Farber’s truly cosmopolitan reach and appeal.

I noticed a few errors and omissions. One of its contributors, screenwriter Patrick Amos, lacks a bio at the back. Twice, on pages 84-85 and 144, a block of text instantly repeats itself. In the “Notes” section, an entire page appears twice within the span of only 6 pages! A mimicry, perhaps, of Farber’s own tendency to literary parataxis, reworking the same thought-statement over and over in slightly different ways, or the repetition of certain motifs across his paintings? I doubt it.

Naturally enough, it is a book that wants you to love Farber just as its editors and contributors do. Since I am already among the converted on that score, I had no problem with this pitch. Some of my readers will be well aware of the vicious, internecine taste-wars between cinephiles – waged particularly, these days, on social media – pitting Farber against Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or (further afield) Robin Wood and Victor Perkins.

The rumble between these warriors is often superficial. But there is much to be taken up, by someone somewhere, in the course of a genuine, open-minded critique of Farber’s work. Surely Farber himself – who was unsparing in his criticism of even close friends such as James Agee – would have agreed with that.

© Adrian Martin September 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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